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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radio Reaches Behind Prison Walls

Locked up in a cold punishment cell in the middle of his six-year imprisonment for anti-Soviet propaganda, Valery Abramkin dreamed of a little more than food, warm clothes and cigarettes -- he wanted to listen to the radio. Not to the maddening mix of propaganda and communist folk songs imposed on prisoners by the labor camp administration from dawn to sunset, but to a program that would tell inmates about their rights, broadcast letters from their relatives and friends, and tell the world about their experiences, Abramkin fantasized. He made the first step towards his goal in late October 1991, six years after his release, when the state station Radio Russia allowed him to broadcast an appeal in a human rights program for a two-hour strike by prisoners to demand reforms in the gulag, the penitentiary system. In January, 1992, Abramkin's fantasy became fact. Radio Russia agreed to give him broadcasting time to launch the program Oblaka, or Clouds, named after a song by the dissident poet Alexander Galich. "The prison falls silent at 20:10 every Tuesday" when the 50-minute program begins, said a letter from a prisoner in Oryol in southern Russia. In the two years of its existence, the program has campaigned persistently against tyranny and torture reported in camps and prisons where the administration tries to subdue convicts and force them into collaboration. "I do not consider myself a journalist," Abramkin said. "Journalists just grab a story and forget all about the characters. We actually try to help." Help offered by Oblaka is accepted with gratitude by convicts and their relatives, but it also draws bitter criticism in a society which has a tradition of harsh punishments and is weary of growing crime rates. "We seek to restore the traditional Russian attitude to the prisoner," Abramkin said. "It was Christian. What had happened to the person was considered a misery, trouble which needed to be shared with the prisoner." Traditionally, when parties of convicts were escorted through towns and villages in 19th-century Russia, local residents would come out to meet them and give them food and money. But since the 1917 revolution, tight security minimized prisoners' contacts with the outside world. Under Stalin many convicts could not contact their families for years. Abramkin said he did not know the size of the program's audience. But he believes several million listeners of the "voice of prisoners," as he describes Oblaka, is a likely estimate. About 900,000 people are now confined in labor camps, prisons and other penitentiaries, according to official data.